Marshmallow Gas Giant Found at Red Dwarf Star

An exoplanet found orbiting a red dwarf star turns out to have the density of a marshmallow, surprising researchers who didn’t expect a planet with an atmosphere that close to an active star.

Beth Johnson

--

IMAGE: A gas giant exoplanet [right] with the density of a marshmallow has been detected in orbit around a cool red dwarf star [left] by the NASA-funded NEID radial-velocity instrument on the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, a Program of NSF’s NOIRLab. The planet, named TOI-3757 b, is the fluffiest gas giant planet ever discovered around this type of star. CREDIT: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva/Spaceengine/M. Zamani

Astronomers at Kitt Peak have discovered a Jupiter-ish planet orbiting a red dwarf. Now, you know we only bring you exoplanet stories when there is something unusual, and as always, this release is no exception. This planet, TOI-3757 b, has the density of a marshmallow, making this the lowest-density planet ever detected, coming in at a mere 0.27 grams per cubic centimeter. That’s less than half the density of our own planet Saturn.

This strange exoplanet was found in data taken by NASA’s TESS spacecraft, which uses the transition method of detection — measuring the change of the star’s light as the planet passes between the star and the spacecraft. From those measurements, researchers calculated the gas giant has a diameter of 150,000 kilometers. For reference, Jupiter is slightly smaller.

As a follow-up to the space observations, the research team took measurements with two different instruments — NEID and NESSI — at the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope, as well as with the Habitable-zone Planet Finder (HPF) on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope and the Red Buttes Observatory (RBO). These measurements included the apparent motion of the parent star, also known as the radial velocity, which provided the planet’s mass — only a quarter that of Jupiter.

And from there, using the simple formula of mass divided by volume, this close-in world can (like Saturn) float in a big enough bathtub of water.

Not only is the density incredibly low, but since red dwarf stars are well known for their powerful flares, and this planet orbits the star in only 3.5 days, scientists were surprised to find such a wispy world. Those flares tend to strip planets of their atmospheres, and frankly, TOI-3757 b seems like it shouldn’t exist.

The team who made the discovery has a possible answer for the why of this unusual world’s existence. Per the press release: They propose that the extra-low density of TOI-3757 b could be the result of two factors

--

--

Beth Johnson

Planetary scientist, podcast host. Communication specialist for SETI Institute and Planetary Science Institute. Buy me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/planetarypan